How to punish wartime collaborators? Ukraine is on a painful path

Stories of betrayal leak out weekly or even daily: a villager informs the occupying Russian military units of the identities and actions of volunteer defenders. A resident of the besieged city secretly names the coordinates of the camp of Ukrainian troops. The mayor of a small town tells the neighbors that the Russian invasion will not cause harm.

While people waged wars, they were afraid of the internal enemy. Collaboration and betrayal run dark threads through the tapestry of almost every war narrative, no matter how triumphant: in ancient Greece, in Revolutionary America, in Nazi-occupied France.

And in Ukraine, which is struggling with the existential fight to protect yourself from the army of Vladimir Putin.

Those who study the phenomenon of collaborationism say that the choice to betray one’s country and compatriots can be motivated by many factors: divided loyalty, personal animosity or gain, an attempt to buy security for one’s own family or society.

“There are many reasons,” says Ukrainian military historian Roman Ponomarenko. “It can be based on a person’s feelings for the so-called “Russian world”, or survival instinct, or be motivated by a selfish impulse. Or they just don’t care about the country.”

More than five months of struggle under pressure from the Russians, Ukraine demonstrated a remarkable degree of national solidarity. Collaboration, when it does occur, is often a source of burning shame, a largely taboo subject even among those who have been victims rather than perpetrators.

However, the topic resurfaced this month when President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke publicly. remote two senior security and law enforcement officials – the head of domestic intelligence and the country’s attorney general – said their agencies were swarming with hundreds of Russian sympathizers or saboteurs.

None of the officials were personally implicated, but the episode was the biggest government reshuffle since the February events. 24 invasion.

“Crimes against the foundations of the national security of the state, revealed links between employees of the security forces of Ukraine and the special services of Russia raise very serious questions,” the president said, announcing the removal of two high-ranking officials. , Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova, and Ivan Bakanov, a childhood friend of the president who headed the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU.

More than 650 criminal cases have been filed against law enforcement and law enforcement officials for alleged collaboration or treason, Zelenskiy said, a worrying development for agencies tasked with dealing with such matters.

At least 1,300 people, including private individuals, are under investigation across the country on charges of collaborationism, head of the National Police Igor Klymenko told the Ukrainian media in June.

At both the provincial and national levels, many prosecutors routinely evade questions in such cases that fall within their jurisdiction. But especially in those areas where Russian troops first dominated, and then fell back — including a number of suburban towns and suburbs near the capital, Kyiv — allegations of collaboration continue to surface as investigators struggle to document a wide range of alleged war crimes occupying forces.

Part of this evolving picture is identifying who could help the Russian forces.

“There were such people among us,” admitted Mikhailina Skorik-Shkarivskaya, deputy mayor of Bucha, once a quiet suburb of Kyiv. The name of the city has become synonymous terrible atrocities committed against civilians – some of which, according to the deputy mayor, were likely facilitated by local residents who passed on information after Bucha fell under Russian control at the beginning of the war.

According to Andriy Nebytov, head of the Kyiv region police, about 40 cases of suspected cooperation are being investigated in the capital area. According to him, the consequences of such betrayals were sometimes horrifying.

In the village of Motzhin in March, in the first days of the war, the head of the village, Olga Sukhenko, was tortured and killed along with her husband and 25-year-old son. Ukrainian authorities say she and her family were targeted because of their alleged acquaintance with those who were active in the territorial defense forces or otherwise resisted the occupation.

“The collaborators pointed her out to the Russians,” Nebytov said.

Human rights activists, both Ukrainian and international, have raised concerns about whether accused or suspected collaborators will receive due process in the midst of a brutal war. At the same time, there are problems with freedom of speech: when does a public expression of sympathy for the occupiers turn into helping them?

In some communities there is no doubt that harsh justice is done from time to time. In one of the abandoned village cemeteries near the capital, a local resident who was on a tour recently showed visitors the grave of a man who was suspected of helping the occupiers.

“He’s been taken care of,” he said grimly, refusing to say more.

Often, however, those who sided with the Russians — and feared their neighbors knew it — fled as Moscow troops retreated from areas around the capital, taking refuge in Russian-controlled areas or hiding elsewhere, police say. This makes them inaccessible to the Ukrainian authorities, at least for the moment.

In some areas occupied or threatened by Russian troops, some Ukrainian officials are trying to turn the tables on Russian efforts to lure locals into cooperation.

In the southern city of Mykolaiv, considered a key Ukrainian bastion on the Black Sea coast and subject to repeated Russian strikes in recent weeks, Gov. Vitaliy Kim this month offered a $100 reward to anyone who reports someone acting on behalf of Russia.

Kim said at a press conference that about 100 tips were given in one day, and most people weren’t looking for an award but just wanted to help. But the governor acknowledged that it was important to prevent a “witch-hunt” in which people could try to settle personal scores by making hard-to-rebut accusations of cooperation.

In the southern port city of Mariupol, captured by Russian forces in May after a bloody and protracted battle, exiled mayor Vadim Boychenko subsequently claimed that Ukrainian “spotters” were in the city during the battle, providing accurate coordinates for the bombardment of critical infrastructure and who relayed detailed information about when buses with evacuees will try to leave the city.

Even in war-ravaged parts of the country, some Ukrainians — especially those who came of age before 1991, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union — have traditionally felt culturally connected to Russia. Along the eastern front, where Russian bombardments have reduced many cities and towns to smoldering ruins, Ukrainian defenders have publicly said they were brought back from time to time after encounters with locals who refused to believe that Russia was attacking.

Some senior Ukrainian officials now say the feeling of kinship has always been misplaced.

“Thirty years of our so-called great friendship with the Russian Federation has now resulted in a great aggression, a great war,” national security adviser Alexei Dnilov recently said on Ukrainian public broadcaster. “These are the consequences of our imprudent position throughout the 30 years of our country’s existence.”

Shortly after the start of the war, Ukrainian legislators tightened laws on collaborationism, allowing penalties of up to 15 years and confiscation of property. In cases that result in death or death, the penalty may be life imprisonment.

But often cooperation is not an open and closed case. Ponomarenko, a World War II European researcher, noted that in areas occupied by Moscow troops since the early days of the war, such as the southern city of Kherson, teachers are being ordered to teach in a pro-Russian curriculum. The new law could technically open the door to prosecution, which he says would be wrong.

“It is very difficult to say,” Ponomarenko said.

Even the most staunch Ukrainian patriots have tacitly resigned themselves to the fact that both the foggy nature and the huge number of cases of collaborationism, combined with the urgency of waging a war, the outcome of which is far from guaranteed, is likely to lead to years of retribution.

If Ukrainian forces can retake control of areas like Kherson, which fell in the early days of the war, officials say the top priority may be to reunite communities ravaged by the war. But if the Russians are discarded, new evidence will inevitably emerge against the locals who helped them.

“Responsibility for cooperation is inevitable,” Zelenskiy said in a speech earlier this year. “Whether it will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow is another question.”